Can I find the slave ports through which my ancestors came?


Dear Professor Gates:

I am an amateur genealogy enthusiast seeking help with my family tree research. How can I find records of slave trading in the U.S.? I know my grandparents on both sides of the family were born in Mississippi and Tennessee, but I’m pretty sure their parents didn’t arrive straight from Africa or the Caribbean to those states. How can I locate the areas from overseas that embarked slaves to the U.S. and which states in which they disembarked? I have relatives all over but have been concentrating on Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. —Toni Stovall

Because of the dehumanizing nature of the slave trade, it will be very difficult to trace your ancestors in this manner. As David Eltis, co-editor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, told us in an email, “If families can trace their origins to pre-Revolutionary times, then there’s a good chance that their African ancestor(s) disembarked at the port closest to where he or she [lived], but even then, we cannot usually make specific documentary connections between voyage and captive. A major reason for this is that slaveholders typically renamed newcomers.”

So we’re not sure we can give you the answers you desire, but we can tell you what we do know, and give you some leads to pursue.

Migration Patterns

One strategy to answering your question is to follow migration patterns created by the slave trade domestically and overseas. This method will provide a better sense of how your ancestors likely arrived in the United States and how they moved once they got here.

As previously noted on The Root in the column 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, between 1525 and 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World, and 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Only about 388,000 were sent directly to North America.

In addition to that forced migration of human beings to North America, in the seven decades leading up to the Civil War there was domestic slave trade in the United States. This second mass migration complicates even further any attempts to locate the ports through which your ancestors first arrived here. However, sources are available that provide data on the patterns in this migration, domestically and abroad, and that may help you in your search.

If you are interested in working back to your ancestors’ origins overseas, you must first trace your family back as far as possible in the U.S. to determine a likely starting point for your family’s roots in the Americas. A great place to start learning more about how your ancestors may have moved within the U.S. is In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, a project by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The site includes an entire section on the Domestic Slave Trade, along with maps of each era that provide a visual of the migration created by this system. The site also provides links to other sources that may be helpful in your search.

The patterns of migration described in this source may prove helpful in tracing your ancestors’ movements within the U.S., providing clues on where to look for more information. If you are able to determine the location of your ancestors in the mid-1700s, they were probably living close to where they arrived, in which case you could take the next step in tracing their likely origins in Africa.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database may prove to be the most useful source for answers to your question. There are three methods to search for information through this source: You can search theVoyages Database; examine documents, tables and maps through the Assessing the Slave Tradeoption; or explore the African Names Database.

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